MOSCOW, JUNE 12 -- The leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church today officially defrocked the head of its Ukrainian branch, accusing him of a variety of sins, including creating a schism in the church just as it emerges from decades of communist oppression.
Metropolitan Filaret, a controversial and conservative religious figure who has called for an autonomous Ukrainian church, was stripped of all his clerical responsibilities and rank by a ruling synod of Russian orthodox bishops and archbishops.
"He is an ordinary citizen now. He no longer has any relationship with the church and the clergy," one of the archbishops, Metropolitan Vladimir, told the Russian news agency Itar-Tass.
Filaret, who did not attend the synod, tonight declared the decision politically motivated and invalid.
"This is revenge for my desire to achieve the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church," Filaret told Reuters, when contacted at his Kiev residence. "The council of the Russian Orthodox Church has pursued political, not church, interests."
The action is more than just a nasty fight over a churchman's conduct, though Filaret is accused of many serious personal improprieties, including complicity with the KGB and having a common-law wife and children. There are many in Ukraine, including President Leonid M. Kravchuk, who support a separate Ukrainian Church and viewed the Russian Orthodox Church as the final hindrance to full independence from Moscow.
Despite seven decades of official atheism during Soviet rule, many Russians and Ukrainians are believers. Until now that has made them believers in the Russian Orthodox Church, which was founded 1,000 years ago in Kiev, now the capital of independent Ukraine. But the decision to strip Filaret of his religious authority is certain to lead to a period of at least uncertainty for many Ukrainian believers and possibly a more substantial rift.
In announcing their decision today, the Russian Orthodox leaders went out of their way to say that they were reacting only to Filaret's unacceptable personal and clerical -- but not political -- conduct.
They accused him of "cruelty and arrogance" in dealing with people and of ruling over the church by "diktat and blackmail." More importantly, they accused him of "public criticism and slander" of church authorities and of "violating his oath" by reneging on a promise to retire in April that he had made under pressure from church authorities.
Although the Ukrainian bishops went ahead and elected a new leader of their branch in May -- an ethnic Ukrainian who had been until then the head of management for the Moscow Patriarchate -- Filaret refused to step down. In fact he had continued to ordain priests and bishops, which the council today said also was "illegal" behavior on his part.
The synod's ruling did not deal directly with allegations made by Filaret's critics that he had violated his vows of celibacy by fathering children and having a common-law wife. It said only that he had "brought temptation" into the ranks of religious people.
After the decision was announced, however, Metropolitan Vladimir said, "He may remain a monk if he wished, but since he is such a good 'family' man, this is questionable."
According to Dmitry Shusharin, religion reporter for the Russian newspaper Nezavisimaya Gazetta, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Alexei II, is not opposed to giving the Ukrainian branch its autonomy. He said it is widely acknowledged in church circles that such a split eventually will happen. But Shusharin said the man chosen to replace Filaret is a "more moderate" man than Filaret and while he also supports autonomy "he will pursue it in a different way."